After 15 years of delays and litigation, Regency Centers Corp. is preparing to break ground on what was once considered one of the most contentious development sites in Los Angeles County.

The Jacksonville, Fla.-based shopping center developer plans to convert a 6.5-acre former scrap-metal recycling plant into an $18 million, 77,000-square-foot outdoor retail center at the southwest corner of highly trafficked Slauson and Central avenues in South Los Angeles.

The project, which would be that area’s first major new outdoor shopping center in decades, had been held up for years by lawsuits from the previous owners of the land, which was seized through eminent domain.

But after resolving the final litigation in September, Regency expects to finish the environmental cleanup of the contaminated brownfield site next month and start construction by early next year.

“We are extremely excited now that that is behind us,” said John Mehigan, vice president of investments at Regency in Los Angeles, who along with Managing Director Mac Chandler has worked on the project for years. “Our intention is to build a shopping center in an area that needed it.”

Regency targeted the area because management believes it is highly underserved. More than 450,000 people live in a three-mile radius of the site, yet the area has only small markets and no full-service grocers or retail centers.

The developer has signed leases at the project, known as the Slauson Central Retail Center, with Hispanic grocer Northgate Gonzalez Markets Inc. and CVS Caremark Corp. It is in negotiations with other retailers, including Starbucks Corp. If all goes according to plan, the project would open in early 2014.

The center had been the brainchild of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and local residents group Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, which is the community development partner for the project. Its executive director, Noreen McClendon, said the group has been lobbying for a grocery-anchored shopping center for almost 30 years.

“The need is huge,” McClendon said. “I’ve lived in that neighborhood since the early ’90s and for most of that time I’ve had to drive to the Westside to get good quality groceries. A lot of people don’t have access to a vehicle. We need a fresh produce section here.”

Looking back

The Community Redevelopment Agency, with the support of Councilwoman Jan Perry, had sought since the mid-1990s to build a shopping center at the site, which was mostly an open yard that housed scrap metal. There are few undeveloped properties in populous areas in South Los Angeles that would have been viable for a retail center, one major reason why such centers don’t exist in the neighborhood today.